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 Phillip Rollfing  

Planning for sustainability

Brody developing tools to balance
growth, ecosystem preservation



Urban planners walk a tightrope, managing inevitable growth while maintaining ecosystem function, weighing environmental issues such as preserving wetlands and water quality alongside the task of mitigating natural hazards that threaten people. Texas A&M University architecture professor Samuel Brody and other researchers help provide the tools such planners need to keep their balance.

"Here at the Environmental Planning and Sustainability Research Unit (EPSRU) in the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, we research actual problems, then feed that information to decision makers," says Brody, a professor in the College of Architecture's Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. "We map, measure and analyze across space, looking at the effects of existing policies on ecosystems. Most of our research is funded by grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Those funds support our lab, the hub of EPSRU in which six graduate students and one undergraduate work."

Brody, who modestly insists he owes all his success to these students, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award to study the impacts of development on Texas and Florida wetlands and coastal watersheds adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Over time, development has altered these wetlands, with a cumulative effect of exacerbating flooding," Brody says. "We're studying the scale of these effects, paying attention to the type of wetland impacted and its place in the watershed."

One approach to studying wetland impacts has involved tracing the 50,000 development permits issued in the area over a 13-year period.

"Temporally, these permits move over the face of the landscape, showing the degree of alteration brought about by development and its impact on flooding," Brody explains.

The permits help trace how actual development has deviated from original future-land-use maps adopted by country and city jurisdictions. Brody's team used the resulting permit map to examine factors that influencing such development patterns, which do not conform to plans, and to isolate specific socioeconomic, demographic and geographic variables that may have contribution to this deviation.

"These are hard research questions," Brody says. "Wetlands hold and store water and over time form the perfect natural buffer to repetitive chronic flooding. With long-term degradation of the environment from nonsustainable development patterns, cumulative impacts may result in flooding hazards."

Brody also has worked with researchers from the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M to study climate change and people's perceptions of their risk, comparing such perceptions to actual risk as indicated by proximity to the coast, elevation and past events.

"We found that persons living near the coasts who had experienced casualties from hurricanes had more accurate perceptions of their potential risk from global-warming-induced rises in sea level than did persons living in floodplains further inland," he says.

And this month, he'll begin working with Sea Grant on a NOAA-funded project to produce a planning atlas for coastal communities.

"This atlas would be available to anyone via the Internet," Brody explains. "It would include socioeconomic, biological and hazards data which could be queried. Users could construct what-if scenarios as a tool to discovering ways to mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts of proposed actions."


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Samuel Brody, College of Architecture